So, it’s the European Cup final tonight. I bought my Guardian and went down the cafe this morning, turning to the sport first in the way I do, clinging to my childhood. Obviously, I expected there to be a fair amount on the encounter between the Madrid teams in Lisbon, but not half as much as there turned out to be: the idea that an ECF between two non-British teams would have used this much ink in a UK broadsheet would have seemed pretty absurd even ten years ago, when Beckham was at Real and McManaman had just left, and completely implausible in the 1990s. The depth of coverage was also noteworthy: five or six hundred words on Diego Simeone, more than a thousand on Cristiano Ronaldo and, most eyebrow-raisingly, smatterings of untranslated Spanish football slang.
This, of course, is the year that Real Madrid hope to claim their tenth European Cup, La mythical Décima. Interestingly, the conservative papers with, one might expect, less football-hip readerships feel the need to provide context for this term, explaining why Real are so hypnotised by the prospect of a tenth title. The Guardian, however, which has spearheaded the boom in Spanish football analysis with the writing of arch-connoisseur Sid Lowe, seems to expect that its readers are fully conversant with the politico-emotional logic of Iberian football, presumably because they subscribe to The Blizzard and have Zonal Marking bookmarked and all that kind of thing.
Anyway, the point here isn’t to cut down footballing Hispanophilia, so I’ll try and rein it in somewhat. I do happen to find the casual tossing of a lingo clearly designed to produce an ‘in’ group into football conversations irksome – and I say this as someone who used the word Gedankenexperiment in a post on here recently – but I’m also intrigued as to what exactly occasioned the ‘Spanish turn’ of the last six or seven years. Two explanations are typically tendered for this. The first of these, David Beckham’s journey to La Liga, seems banal and, in any case, inaccurate. It’s anachronistic, for a start, but it also overlooks the fact that the kind of people who will be rooting for El Atléti tonight in Dalston and Didsbury are also the kind of people who could write a mean tacto-dossier on why Beckham wasn’t really very good. The second explanation is the sensational, arguably revolutionary, football of Guardiola’s Barcelona, a beautiful style for a city whose edgy élan is hymned endlessly in this country, maintained by players who seemed in the main like people you’d enjoy going for a pint with – well, maybe this is just Xavi, but the point stands.
I don’t think the Barcelona explanation stands up alone, though, and I think the ‘beautiful style for a beautiful city’ component is the giveaway here. It seems to me that Guardiola’s tiki-taka and the general elegance of his team simply confirmed something that British people were starting to feel about Spain in general, and I make no apologies for labelling Barcelona as a ‘Spanish’ team here as, for all of our so-called knowledge of ‘Catalunya’, that’s essentially how they are perceived in the UK. I’m just going to try and sketch a couple of notes, then, about how the ‘Spanish turn’ in football mirrors a more general one.
Spain is caught up in a complex relation of othering with England. The two countries became inextricably linked in their early modern history and, ever since, Spain has served a peculiar role in its one-time adversary’s cultural imagination. Spain for England is, on one hand, brutality – Goya’s Disasters of War, the hilltop bombing scene in For Whom the Bell Tolls – and uninhibited eroticism. It seems to knot violence, tragedy, sexuality and aesthetics in a way which exceeds even France’s potential for doing this – and this knotting was, I’d contend, as much as a pull as the formally political one during the Spanish Civil war. Remember Auden’s orientalising lines?
On that arid square, that fragment nipped off from hot
Africa, soldered so crudely to inventive Europe;
On that tableland scored by rivers,
Our thoughts have bodies; the menacing shapes of our fever
Are precise and alive.
There was a period, probably from the late sixties through to as recently as the late nineties, when middle-class Britain turned its nose up at Spain for the most part. Spain was Torremolinos and Magaluf; the Sagrada Familia and the Prado were exceptions that proved the rule. If you were going to Southern Europe, you went and faffed about in Provence or sampled Italy’s celebrated pavement culture so as to return to Britain and wonder why it wasn’t like that in Louth or Clitheroe. Something began to change, perhaps, as the Blair years wore on and people began to see Italy as a bourgeois cliche, a nice enough place to visit but one in which pleasure was a bit too forecastable. Come to think of it, I’ve been to Italy enough times to know that it can be strangely predictable so long as you’re sticking to the big cities – only Naples seems to carry with it the energetically uncanny feel of Barcelona, Bilbao or San Sebastian. Italy, in other words, lost its edge.
In the nineties, Spain also underwent an economic boom of sorts, and its regions – probably for some Europe Union-related reason I have no time to look up – acquired funding which allowed cities like Bilbao and San Sebastian, in synchronicity with fellow provincial ports Newcastle and Hamburg, to undergo culture-led regeneration programmes. Why would you want to go to some dusty old museum in Florence, full of antiquated statues of naked saints that provoke little but a deep anxiety of engagement, when you could go to a shimmering new gallery by Frank Gehry or Rafael Moneo with some gardening by Jeff Koons outside? Why would you want to eat pizza when you eat a fifteen-course tasting menu representing the zenith of Ferran Adrià’s gastroscience or the nouvelle cuisine basque? Fuck Chianti, mine’s a Garnacha.
In other words, the Spanish Turn in football is an outgrowth of a broader fetishisation of Spain which has been taking place in Britain ever since people decided Benicassim was a bigger event than Glastonbury. I love Spain – I’ve only been there a couple of times, but it ticks the boxes of the less contrarian part of me – but it does seem useful to speculate as to why its football has been treated in such a particular way of late.
Posted by Joe Kennedy